Reeling Back the Years: Commemorating the Middle Ages

By Irene O’Daly

As preparations for the World Cup gather momentum here in the Netherlands, it is worth remembering some of the other reasons why 2014 is an important year. Many commemorations across the world are marking the passing of 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War. But 2014 also commemorates two events of medieval significance, one which had European-wide implications, and one of, arguably, stronger national concern.

In 814 in the now German town of Aachen Charlemagne, the founder of the Carolingian Empire, sickened. According to the account of his biographer Einhard, Charlemagne took to bed with a high fever, and proceeded to fast from food hoping to drive the fever away. It was to no avail, however, and he died a week later, after taking Holy Communion on January 28. Einhard’s account of Charlemagne’s death and burial is rich in symbolism. He was buried in the cathedral he built, a monument to medieval architecture to this day, and his death was preceded by a number of omens and portents. Einhard recounts multiple eclipses in the years prior, the collapse of part of Charlemagne’s palace, the destruction by fire of a bridge over the Rhine at Mainz, and the appearance of black spots in the sun. The emperor’s passing was marked by a series of fitting and dramatic events.

Decorated initial from the Vita Karoli Magni by Einhard, Paris, BnF, Latin 5927 fol. 280v, Abbaye Saint-Martial de Limoges, ca. 1050 (?)

Decorated initial from the Vita Karoli Magni by Einhard, Paris, BnF, Latin 5927 fol. 280v, Abbaye Saint-Martial de Limoges, ca. 1050 (?). Source: / BnF

The town of Aachen is marking 1200 years since Charlemagne’s death with the launch of a trio of exhibitions celebrating Charlemagne’s military and cultural achievements, which will include a display of a number of manuscripts. The period of Carolingian manuscript production kick-started by Charlemagne was unique as it united innovations in all aspects of book craft: the clarity of the text itself came under renewed study by scholars, while the script of these texts was simplified and standardised. In hand with these developments, the status of the book was celebrated by intricate decorations and bindings, some of which have survived to this day.

Ivory Front Cover for the Lorsch Gospels, carved in Aachen, c. 810

Ivory Front Cover for the Lorsch Gospels, carved in Aachen, c. 810 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Jumping forward two hundred years… 2014 also marks the millennium of another important medieval event with strong relevance to Irish history, the Battle of Clontarf (23 April 1014). On the field at Clontarf, the forces of the High King of Ireland, Brian Boru, defeated an army of Vikings, lead in part from the Viking stronghold of Dublin. Although Brian Boru was victorious, he died in battle, and the fighting resulted in the death of thousands of men. Regardless, Brian Boru became an important symbolic figure in Irish history, the leader of the liberation of Ireland from foreign hands. The Battle of Clontarf is being commemorated this year by a re-enactment, and a series of events unfolding throughout the summer.

Unlike Einhard’s Vita Karoli Magni, which, despite some dramatic licence, is as close to an eyewitness biography from the Middle Ages that we can get, accounts of the Battle of Clontarf must be pieced together from a range of medieval sources, including annals, Icelandic sagas, and an epic poem written in the twelfth century entitled ‘Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib’ (The War of the Irish against the Foreigners). These sources present a version of the Battle that reads at times more like a scene from Game of Thrones, than a reflection of what actually happened. Mixing legend with fact, these sources often served a propagandist purpose, reinforcing the historic status of Brian Boru.

The Twitter account @1014retold provided a 'live' tweet stream of the battle on 23 April

The Twitter account @1014retold provided a ‘live’ tweet stream of the battle on 23 April

In each of these cases of commemoration, manuscripts serve as important touchstones. Manuscripts produced in Aachen, or connected with Charlemagne’s school, provide an insight into mechanics of book production in that period. Handled by scribes and scholars surrounding Charlemagne, they are, in a sense, among the most intimate relics of his reign. On the other hand, the sources related to the Battle of Clontarf pose a challenge familiar to medieval researchers: the task of reconstructing an event based on (often biased) accounts written over 100 years later. 2014 is not simply an occasion for commemoration, but prompts a new look at the sources that shaped our understanding of these events – an exciting prospect for medieval scholars worldwide.

Posted in Irene O'Daly

The Beauty of the Injured Book

By Erik Kwakkel (@erik_kwakkel)

While our eyes are naturally drawn to pages filled with color and gold, those without decoration can be equally appealing. Indeed, even damaged goods – mutilated bindings, torn pages, parchment with cuts and holes – can be highly attractive, as I hope to show in this post. The visual power of damage may be generated by close-up photography, with camera and book at just the right angle, catching just the right amount of light. The following images celebrate the beauty of the injured book, the art of devastation.

1. Post-operation

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 191 A (12th century). Pic: the author.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 191 A (12th century). Pic: the author.

This is what I call a Frankenstein page. It is composite in that the top part is from a different sheet, perhaps even from a different animal, than the lower half. The sheet used by the scribe was short on one side, but he still wanted to use it. In came the patch that is now the top half of the page. Where the two pieces of skin meet the scribe-surgeon punched holes through which he pulled a thin cord, joining them together. The operation was successful, the insert was not rejected, and so the page could be filled with text. Miraculously, the low-quality book was never thrown out. Instead, it limped, for centuries, to the finish line of our present day – to the safety of the Leiden University Library.

2. Bad back

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 138 (15th century).

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 138 (15th century). Pic: the author.

This poor-looking manuscript from the fifteenth century looks worn and beaten. It is so happy to be retired that you can almost hear a groan of disappointment when you take it out of its box. The manuscript is filled with school texts and it was heavily used over a long period of time. At some point the binding gave in and began to arch, like an old man with a painful back. It could do so because the book was fitted with a cheap, so-called “limp binding”. This type lacked the wooden boards of regular bindings – as well as the firm support these boards provided. Such bad backs are reflective of how popular the books once were.

3. Sliced

2. Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BUR MS 1. Pic: the author.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BUR MS 1 (c. 1100). Pic: the author.

This page needs a shave. From time to time you encounter a hole in the page, but this one is special. An important stage in the preparation of parchment was removing the hair from the skin. When the parchment-maker pushed too hard with his knife, a cut like this would appear. Not unlike a distracted hairdresser, the individual who prepared the parchment overlooked a few tiny – white – hairs, which still inhabit the hole. It makes for a pretty picture with the light from behind, which also highlights the text on the other side of the page.

4. Scar tissue

3. Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLO MS 92. Pic: the author.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, VLO MS 92 (c. 1000). Pic: the author.

This parchment sheet came from an animal with skin problems. It appears that the cow had been in a fight and was kicked. As your butcher will tell you, such kicks result in scar tissue, which he will remove. Judging from how infrequent we encounter such patches in medieval books, we may assume that skin with such damage was not processed into parchment. However, this particular book was made from off-cuts: strips of bad parchment that were cut away and thrown out. Remarkably, someone fished them out of the bin and produced a book from it (more details can be found in this YouTube movie I made). Thus this “garbage manuscript” exposes an urge for cheap materials as well as a dispute between two medieval cows.

4. Touched by a human

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 191 A (12th century). Pic: the author.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 191 A (12th century). Pic: the author.

Books are made for reading and thus for being handled by human hands. The margins facilitate an easy grip of the book without your fingers blocking the view on the text. However, if you hold a book with dirty hands, you may leave your mark behind as a reader. While such stains are often subtle, the person that handled this twelfth-century manuscript had inky fingers: he left a fingerprint behind. Judging from the colour – a shiny, deep kind of black – it concerns printing ink, which puts this manuscript in the hands of a printer. He did not bother to wash his hands. It was, after all, one of those old-fashioned handwritten manuscripts, which had been long overtaken by the modern and spiffy printed book.

5. Mouldy skin

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 2896 (11th century). Pic: the author.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 2896 (11th century). Pic: the author.

And so it happened that a certain medieval reader did not pay attention and placed his book in a moist environment. And so it happened that he forgot all about the book. That is the story behind the mould on the pages of this eleventh-century Psalter. The fungi turned purple over time, producing a neat contrast between the high quality white parchment sheets and their damaged corners. It’s the beautiful despair of a book under duress.

Note: all images were taken with a Canon Eos 600D camera and a Sigma DC 18-250 mm lens (at aperture value 6.3).

Posted in Erik Kwakkel | Tagged , , , , ,

A Window on the Middle Ages and Some Famous Clothes

We are delighted to present a guest post today by Prof. Francis Newton, Emeritus Professor of Classics at Duke University. 

I was once lucky enough to spend a year in a tiny, mostly mediaeval village in France. A cultivateur whom I knew, who owned one of the larger farms in town, showed me its fourteenth-century barn (grange) and the fifteenth-century farmhouse, where he lived. In the large hall, in which his predecessor, the mediaeval farmer, and his family had meals and slept (or at least certainly slept in the cold winters of Picardy), beside the great fireplace there was a window, with a solid wooden shutter. But the window did not open onto the out-of-doors. It opened onto the stable just on the other side of the thick stone wall, and in the Middle Ages, in the middle of the night, the goodman of the house, simply by opening this shutter in his hall could look down and check on his valuable stock, the very foundation of the entire household and economy of the estate.

La Grange de Buseaudon (constructed at the end of the fourteenth /start of the fifteenth century)

La Grange de Buseaudon (constructed at the end of the 14th /start of the 15th century)

I thought of that old stone farmhouse when I first looked into Egbert of Liège’s The Well-Laden Ship. Egbert’s fascinating collection of fables, proverbs, and folk-tales in Latin, never translated into any other language before, in the new text and translation by Robert G. Babcock, opens for us a window onto the peasant culture of countryside, farm, and village of the region of eleventh-century Liège. Egbert’s unique way of teaching boys Latin, by using material from the talk of their own countryside and villages –only in Latin hexameters–, was intended to make the language easier to grasp because the tales and sayings were already familiar to the young in the vernacular speech.   The collection probably was not intended to preserve a rich segment of mediaeval popular culture for readers eleven centuries later. But that is what it does.

Cover of Robert Babcock's recent publication, a translation of Egbert of Liège's The Well-Laden Ship (Harvard, 2013)

Cover of Robert Babcock’s recent publication, a translation of Egbert of Liège’s The Well-Laden Ship (Harvard, 2013)

Those who have lived in the country will recognize a saying like “A cold May will fill the granaries with corn.” And some of the actual proverbs are familiar to everybody: “Continually rolling stones do not collect moss.” Other proverbs are more familiar in other cultures: “What’s not stolen, the house gives back” is more familiar in Holland (“What the house has lost, the house will find”). Occasionally, in the mix there are quotations from the classics, such as “A drop of water hollows out a stone; a ring is consumed by wear” (Ovid, Ex Ponto 4.10.5).

Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1909) of the well-known fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, which has its roots in medieval storytelling.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1909) of the well-known fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood. A version of this story is first found in Egbert of Liège’s collection.

Among the hundreds of proverbs and the wealth of tales, the reader is often challenged to understand the application, or moral (often in the earlier part, that is supplied). It is clear that the wolf who swallowed the nightingale represents the greedy man who thinks that what creates a loud sound will be large prey as well. But there is a host of other, endearing, mediaeval crackpots, such as the man who made a moon out of wheat bread; or the coward who was apparently ordered to slaughter the day’s catch of wild beasts but –instead–kissed the bear.   Among these obscure figures, a few famous ones appear. Waltharius of Aquitaine, the hero of the great Latin epic under his name, in the single-hexameter proverb and in the expanded tale, now in old age serves a monastery, whose brothers enjoin him, if he falls among enemies, to surrender all earthly goods –except his pants. In the rousing tale, this is what the aged warrior does, to (it seems) illustrate the principle that the Christian must be prepared to surrender all, save modesty itself; for this Waltharius may fight.   And an even more universal heroic figure makes her first appearance in history in Egbert’s enchanting work. This blog will not reveal how Egbert’s version of Little Red Riding Hood turns out –readers will have to see for themselves– but I can say that the cloak is, deservedly, the focus of the action.

Posted in Visiting Bloggers

From Sound to Image, From Language to Culture; A Review of Medieval Academy of America Conference 2014

By Julie Somers

Last week the annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America was held at UCLA in California. Every year this conference brings together scholars from all over the world to discuss and share experiences related to their work on the Middle Ages. At the opening session of the conference we were treated to live musical excerpts* as part of the presentation by Susan Boynton (Columbia University) on ‘Music as Text and Music as Image.’ Boynton’s paper explored the way image is connected to sounds in the text. We are reminded that the pages can be loud. Images of choirs of angels, birds that fill the margins, or groups of monks performing daily chant present a lively reflection of the musical nature of the book. The addition of a live performance really brought Boynton’s examples to life and was a wonderful way to begin the three day conference, hosted by UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Susan Boynton (Columbia University)

Susan Boynton (Columbia University)

A busy conference with multiple sessions available, there was something for everyone. Topics on Thursday covered Scandanavia to Sicily, with an underlying theme of language and cultural encounters. In the session, ‘Queens and Empresses: Beyond the Agency Question,’ the speakers, Kriszta Kotsis (University of Puget Sound), Theresa Earenfight (Seattle University) and Gillian Gower (UCLA) addressed the concerns of women in royal settings, including beauty, fertility and proper behavior. Gower, similar to the opening presentation by Boynton, demonstrated how music can act as an image, ‘it sounds as it should look.’ The motet composed for the wedding of Catherine de Valois to King Henry V, En Katerine solennia/Virginalis contio/Sponsus amat sponsum depicts the story of the virgin martyr St. Catherine, who was tortured on a spiked wheel for her refusal to marry. Gower argues that the music presented on the page mimics elements of the legend of St. Catherine – the notes look as if they are bleeding, the accidentals (in the form of a sharp) represent the spikes and the music itself follows a circular style that reminds us of the wheel in the legend. The music acts as an historiated initial thus reinforcing the connection between the legend of St. Catherine and her namesake, Queen Catherine de Valois.

Friday continued with the theme of languages and cultural encounters. During the morning session, Christopher Cannon (New York University), Kathryn Kerby-Fulton (University of Notre Dame) and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Fordham University) each gave powerful papers under the heading; ‘Competing Archives, Competing Histories: French and its Cultural Location in Late Medieval England.’ Each presentation addressed aspects of medieval vernacular research. Cannon began by questioning how we define the vernacular, arguing that Latin, being a primary language of medieval England should also be treated as a vernacular language. In a similar line, Wogan-Browne pointed to the fluid boundaries of language, stating that instead of ‘mother tongue versus language of culture,’ we should think ‘mother tongue and the language of culture.’ An informative paper, she kindly summed up her main points in this slide.

Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Fordham University)

Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Fordham University)

As with all types of large conferences, deciding on which sessions to attend is always difficult. I was happy I chose to listen to the papers given in the afternoon on ‘Museums and the Presentation of the Middle Ages.’ Two curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Peter Barnet and Helen C. Evans) and a curator from The Walters Art Museum (Martina Bagnoli) showed us images on the changing dynamics of presenting medieval art in a museum setting. Taking us through the different ‘fashion’ of the times, we saw the development of the galleries and the struggles each museum faced in regards to conservation, construction and presentation of the buildings and the objects they hold.

This was a perfect segue into the evening exhibition and reception at the UCLA Library Special Collections, Young Research Library. Illuminated manuscripts and early printed books from the library’s collection were on display for us to admire with a special welcome from Professor Emeritus Dr. Richard Rouse (UCLA). Needless to say, from sound to image, language to culture, I found the conference very inspiring and look forward to attending in the future.

*Music Ensemble: G. Edward Bruner, Chriten Herman, Chris Green, George Sterne, Christopher Walker, directed by Martha Cowan.



Posted in Julie Somers | Tagged , ,

“There’s a map for that!” Visualizing the Medieval World

By Jenneka Janzen

Generally, a map is a visual illustration of an area, a means to symbolically represent spatial relationships between objects, regions, and even ideas. I bet for many of us we most commonly use maps to find the quickest bike path to the train station or the easiest route to drive to Ikea. Looked at less practically, however, maps can reveal much about how we view the world around us.

While we tend to use maps to show distance, medieval maps are more focused on relationships. Probably the most common type of medieval mappa mundi, or world map, was the O-T map (so called because it looks like an O with a T in it) which clearly depicted the continents as the settling places of Noah’s sons Shem (Asia), Japeth (Europe) and Cham (Africa). It was based on Isidore of Seville’s seventh-century description of the physical world.

British Library, Royal 12 F. IV, f.135v. 12th century.

British Library, Royal 12 F. IV, f. 135v. 12th century.

Orbis a rotunditate circuli dictus, quia sicut rota est […] Undique enim Oceanus circumfluens eius in circulo ambit fines. Divisus est autem trifarie: e quibus una pars Asia, altera Europa, tertia Africa nuncupatur.

The world is said [to be] round like a circle, because it resembles a wheel […] Indeed the Ocean, flowing around it on all sides, encompasses its furthest reaches in a circle. It is divided in three parts: one of which is called Asia, the second Europe, the third Africa. (Etymologiae, 14)

Copies of Beatus of Liébana’s Commentary on the Apocalypse, often known for their incredible illustrations, use a variation of the OT map to illustrate the exodus of the Apostles.

Las Huelgas Beatus, Pierpont Morgan Library, M. 429, f. 31v-32r. September 1220. Zoom in closer here.

Las Huelgas Beatus, Pierpont Morgan Library, M. 429, f. 31v-32r. September 1220. Zoom in closer here.

Want more Beatus maps? Go here!

Want more Beatus maps? Go here!

While most surviving maps are found in books, they were also created to stand alone, such as the Hereford Mappa Mundi, created c. 1300 and now hanging in Hereford Cathedral. As the largest surviving medieval map, it stands on a single piece of vellum at 158 cm by 133 cm (62” by 52”). It illustrates at least 420 towns, 33 plants and animals, 32 people, 15 Biblical events, and 5 scenes drawn from classical mythology. (Note an unsurprising theme in these maps: the Bible is a central iconographical topic, and Jerusalem is often depicted right at the centre.)

The Hereford Mappa Mundi. Explore it on the official website!

The Hereford Mappa Mundi. Explore it on the official website.

There are also strange people depicted, such as the ‘sciapods’ shown in what would be present day India, at the extreme south of the (incompletely) known world. (You can also see a sciapod on the left in the Osma Beatus above.)

Sciapods were a people with one giant foot. As seen here on the Hereford Mappa Mundi, they used this giant foot like an umbrella to shield them from the elements.

Sciapods were a people with one giant foot. As seen here on the Hereford Mappa Mundi, they used this giant foot like an umbrella to shield them from the elements.

As suggested, besides just known lands, mappa mundi sometimes depict the unknown or legendary. They’re not navigational tools to be carted along on your journey, but display items intended to tell stories and teach lessons about the outside world. The largest known medieval map, the Ebstorf Mappa Mundi, was made sometime during the 13th century out of 30 goatskins, measuring 3.6 m by 3.6 m (12’ by 12’). While it was very shamefully destroyed in the bombing of Hanover in 1943, several good facsimiles and photographs were made before its demise.

Facsimile of the now-lost Ebstorf Mappa Mundi.

Facsimile of the now-lost Ebstorf Mappa Mundi.

Around the outer reaches of the map, which rests on the body of Christ, are a variety of strange beings.

This detail of the Ebstorf Mappa Mundi shows the supposed people of Africa. (There are 24 monstrous races on the Ebstorf map, and 20 on Hereford's.)

This detail of the Ebstorf Mappa Mundi shows the supposed people of Africa. (There are 24 monstrous races on the Ebstorf map, and 20 on Hereford’s.)

Some of the most interesting figures (and yet, probably the most disturbing) are Gog and Magog, found on the eastern edge of the world. Gog and Magog (in Revelation 20:7-8; or Gog from Magog in Ezekiel 38-39) were prevalent in both biblical commentary and popular imagination through to the Early Modern period. There are many stories, but essentially, at the apocalypse, Gog and Magog would be released from their prison (some said they were put there by Alexander the Great) to wreak havoc on the world. Here they are munching on some poor sinner’s hands and feet (naturally).


“No thanks! I already ate.”

There are so many fantastic medieval maps – from the west and the east, of the whole world, regions, and towns – that I could only dream of sharing them here. If you’re interested in medieval maps, start with the great Cartographic Images site, or Early Medieval Maps. But be prepared to spend some time – medieval maps will lead you right into the path of an internet vortex!

Posted in Jenneka Janzen | Tagged , , ,

CSI: Manuscript Edition

By Ramona Venema

Ramona Venema works as a research assistant in the Turning Over a New Leaf project. She maintains her own cookery blog.

When I was a small Ramona, I wanted to be an archeologist. I love how history becomes tangible through objects, for example through finding a brooch worn by a Viking or discovering a mug used by a Roman soldier. It reminds us that our ancestors were often not that different from us today. Working with medieval manuscripts often feels like being an archeologist of the book. We might not have to dig for them (usually), but that doesn’t make discoveries any less exciting. In fact, the thought of clean hands at the end of my day makes me feel pretty excited. A medieval book or document sometimes holds clues to those who made and used it, and more specifically “biological” clues. If there had been a DNA or fingerprint database back in the day, that would have made identifying book producers and readers a lot easier.

The Case of the Dirty Finger

Leeuwarden, Tresoar, Ms. 683, f. 136v

Leeuwarden, Tresoar, Ms. 683, f. 136v

Fingerprints are often used to uncover the identity of a thief, murderer and other criminals. Here, they’re used to prove that readers of medieval books didn’t always wash their hands properly. Or was it a scribe who checked if the ink was dry without wiping his fingers first? I reckon handling a medieval pen must have been a pretty messy affair, although I might be drawing conclusions from my own lack of keeping-ink-on-the-paper-not-the-fingers skills. For another fingerprint, see Erik Kwakkel’s Tumblr post on fingerprints.

Tragedy in a Drop of Blood

Source: 1; archival piece kept in the Stadhouderlijk Archief, Leeuwarden, Tresoar

Archival piece kept in the Stadhouderlijk Archief, Leeuwarden, Tresoar Collection.

For the record: this is not a medieval document, but you had probably already guessed that. Be that as it may, this archival document kept in Tresoar (Leeuwarden) is very interesting, as we actually know whose blood is on the page. The writer of this document and shedder of this blood is Frisian stadtholder Willem Frederik. While he was cleaning his pistol on the 24th of October 1664, he accidentally shot himself in the head. However serious this injury, he didn’t die from his wounds immediately. Unable to speak or eat, he scribbled down his last wishes. This is one of the notes that he left, stipulating that his “hofmeester” (magister curiae) was to stay with his wife and children. As he jotted this down, blood must have dripped from his wound onto the paper, leaving us with DNA evidence of the tragedy that had befallen him.

Kiss my…Page?

Haarlem, Stadsbibliotheek, Ms. 184 C 2 1, f. 149v

Haarlem, Stadsbibliotheek, Ms. 184 C 2 1, f. 149v

In hunting for DNA samples, I could not overlook Kathryn Rudy’s work on reader traces of the bodily kind. Armed with a densitometer, she measured how dirty certain medieval books actually are. In one of her articles, Rudy mentions the kissing and touching of missals, in particular the canon page (one of which is shown in the image above).¹ A priest would kiss the page repeatedly, making it the “motel bed” of books. This repeated kissing naturally worried illuminators as their hard work would steadily be kissed away. Therefore, the manufacturers of the missal in the picture above inserted an “osculation plaque” which priests could plant their lips on instead. But as you can see from the worn colors, they often wandered upwards.

These examples really show how close we actually are to history sometimes. From a fingerprint to a bloodstain to other bodily fluids, books can show how personal an item they actually were, and provide a glimpse of the readers who used them. Next time you’re handling a medieval book, do a little “digging” of your own!


  1. Rudy, Kathryn M. “Dirty Books: Quantifying Patterns of Use in Medieval Manuscripts Using a Densitometer.” JHNA 2.1-2 (2010): n. pag. Web. <;.



Posted in Visiting Bloggers | Tagged , , ,

Historiated Initials: Letters with a Story to Tell!

By Jenny Weston

Medieval initials come in all shapes and sizes. They also come with different kinds of decoration. While some feature twisty vines, flowers, and other abstract designs, others present more detailed and distinctive figures and scenes.

Harley 2803, f.176

Isaiah standing in an historiated Initial ‘V’ for Visio: Harley 2803, f.176

Known as ‘historiated initials’, these portray figures or scenes that are clearly identifiable — they tell a story. In the initial ‘V’ above, we see the figure of Isaiah holding a scroll containing the opening words of the Old Testament book of Isaiah.

Some initials are more easily understood than others (at first glance). The following initial, for example, depicts Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from heaven. The identity of Moses is revealed via the context of the scene (God emerging from the clouds to deliver the tablets), as well as from the two little horns poking out of his head.

Royal 3 E I   f. 112

Historiated Initial ‘H’ for Hec: Royal 3 E I f. 112

While this depiction of Moses with horns may seem unusual, to most medieval readers this would have been a familiar portrayal of the biblical figure. It is widely believed that Jerome made a simple translation error when creating the Latin Vulgate, which resulted in Moses being described as having ‘horns on his face’, as opposed to ‘light on his face’.

The figures presented in medieval historiated initials were not always biblical. Kings, queens, bishops, abbots, and even some popular authors also made appearances within the walls of the manuscript letter. In some (rather fun) cases, the author of a text is depicted in the initial, working on the very text in which he sits (like a mirror of a mirror…). In a copy of Peter Lombard’s Sententiae, for example, we see Lombard himself depicted in a large  initial, happily working on the Sententiae. Such author portrayals could be compared to modern book-jackets that feature the author on the back cover!

Yates Thompson 17   f. 42v

Peter Lombard in the historiated Initial ‘Q’ for Que: Yates Thompson 17 f. 42v

Historiated initials might also contain a recognizable scene. In some cases, the artist used the initial to explain ideas or concepts discussed in the adjacent text. In a massive 14th-century encyclopedia known as the Omne Bonum (written by James Le Palmer), there are over 1100 folia and 650 illustrations that help the reader to conceptualize the terms presented in the text.

The following image, for instance, depicts the initial ‘G’ for Gula (or Gluttony). Here the artist does not simply showcase the individual eating or drinking too much, but instead visually warns of the adverse consequences of such actions.

Royal 6 E VII   f. 195

Historiated Initial ‘G’ for Gula: Royal 6 E VII f. 195

Other examples appear to be designed to evoke an emotional response from the reader, perhaps spurring them prayer. One manuscript with a wide assortment of detailed (and somewhat gory) historiated initials is a collection of Saints’ Lives (Royal 20 D VI), currently held at the British Library. In this volume there are many colourful examples that depict the rather gruesome martyrdoms of various saints.

Royal 20 D VI   f. 51

The martyrdom of Vincent: Royal 20 D VI f. 51

Royal 20 D VI   f. 86v

The martyrdom of Hippolytus, Historiated Initial ‘V’ for VosRoyal 20 D VI f. 86v

In addition to conjuring up emotional responses, these initials could also serve as a useful textual place-marker, helping the reader to find a specific part of the story without having to read through the text. If a reader wished to find a specific passage in William of Tyre’s Histoire d’Outremer (History of the Crusades), for example, he could simply search through the illustrative scenes at the opening of each new text. Here we see the Siege of Jerusalem (note the little man entering the hole in the wall):

Yates Thompson 12   f. 40v

Historiated initial ‘V’ for Verite: Yates Thompson 12 f. 40v

While historiated initials serve a variety of purposes (textual clarification, elaboration, and place-markers), they are also a testament to the artist’s talent. Manuscript initials provided a unique canvas for artists to show off their skills, which were often incredibly impressive and detailed. To end this brief foray into the world of the historiated initial, I would like to leave you with this wonderful example of Paul the Hermit reading alone in a shrub: 
Royal 20 D VI   f. 195v

Historiated Initial ‘A’ for Asserz: Royal 20 D VI f. 195v (British Library)

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